Book puts Pak Lah back in spotlight

MALAYSIA - Since stepping down as Malaysia's fifth prime minister in April 2009, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has kept a low profile.

That is not surprising perhaps, seeing that he was hounded out of office by his own party leaders.

He has not interfered in how his successor Najib Razak runs the country, a marked contrast from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who constantly harangued the Abdullah administration and today still makes public comments about how he thinks Umno and the country should be run.

As Tun Abdullah says in an interview in a new book that has set tongues wagging: "From the experience I went through, I knew it would not be fair if I were to interfere with Najib because I want him to establish himself as the Prime Minister...

"That is why I have remained silent all this time. I believe that once you retire, you are retired."

His most recent major public engagement was when he campaigned for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and Umno in his home state of Penang during the run-up to the May 5 general election.

It was at these campaign stops that his current standing in Malaysian politics was most evident.

He would arrive at BN campaign centres with police outriders - a sign that Umno's top leadership has made its peace with him - but the turnout was dismal.

Pak Lah, as the 73-year-old is popularly known, just does not possess the grassroots appeal Dr Mahathir has in abundance.

These days, he has few public engagements, an aide says.

He mostly putters around the house, a bungalow near the Malaysian Parliament building, with his wife Jeanne, an avid gardener.

An official biography is expected to be released next year. Last Saturday, he hosted a Hari Raya open house in Putrajaya, not far from his old office.

In other words, Mr Abdullah is playing the role of an affable retired senior politician, again a sharp contrast to the 88-year-old Dr Mahathir.

So the release of his interview in the book, Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years In Malaysia, was a big surprise this past week.

Mr Abdullah has suddenly, if inadvertently, stepped back into the political limelight and ruffled the establishment's feathers.

He sounds bitter from his jabs at Dr Mahathir in the interview, creating a strong backlash from supporters of the older Tun.

Asked about his predecessor chasing him to continue with big projects such as double-tracking the KTM railway lines, he says: "Can you imagine, if I had succumbed to Mahathir's continued pressure to spend when the deficit was already so high, how could Malaysia have weathered the oil and financial crisis which subsequently came in 2008?

"... If we had not been prudent then, continued to spend, I can tell you we would be bankrupt by now."

Responding to Dr Mahathir's claims that his son Kamaluddin and son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin are enriching themselves, Mr Abdullah retorts: "I think it is hypocritical of Mahathir to try and deny my family from being legitimately involved in business when his own children were all heavily involved in business in a big way throughout the entire time he was prime minister."

Mr Abdullah, the grandson and son of prominent Muslim clerics from Kepala Batas in Penang, became premier after 22 years of hard-charging "Mahathirism", with the old boss intent on keeping it that way.

As Prime Minister from October 2003, he received plaudits when he talked about reform, and made a big splash by arresting a serving minister and the former boss of scandal-plagued Perwaja Steel, then a government-linked company, for corruption.

He introduced Islam Hadhari, or Civilisational Islam, to show that Muslims can build civilisations if they bother to acquire knowledge and work hard. But the reform plans faced stiff resistance from Umno and the civil service.

Both Kasitah Gaddam, the minister charged with graft, and Eric Chia, Perwaja's ex-managing director, were acquitted eventually. Islam Hadhari was judged a vague concept that failed to fire up even the Muslims.

Mr Abdullah did open up the democratic space and this is perhaps his best legacy. But did he open it up too fast?

Today, Malaysia lurches from one controversy to the next as everyone wants to have a say, and say it loudly, such as by uploading a clip on YouTube, never mind that it is insulting to people of another race or faith.

In the book's foreword, veteran politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah summed up the Abdullah years thus: "People say that he failed miserably to translate the aspirations of the people in wanting real reforms for the country.

"Perhaps it could be said, he fell into the same trap as many Third World leaders as he too succumbed to corrupting tendencies of power."

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